I was asked a week or so ago if I still wrote and posted items on my website. This provided the incentive for a new posting, so here it is. The finest description of a squash game I have ever read is in Saturday by Ian McEwen. The whole book is about the events of just one day. It is generally brilliant, but the squash game stands out. As I sat and thought about this letter/blog the book came to mind. My experiment is to centre it on Saturdays. I begin with 2nd July, the day I left Montreux.
The big event in the city was the 45th Jazz Festival, but that, sadly, is not why I was there. I was attending a consultative meeting, organised by the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria, to look at their new strategy. While interesting, and a chance to catch up with many old friends it was not as entertaining as the jazz. The town was crowded with people having a great time: old Americans of all colours who looked as though they had played with Louis Armstrong; young French men and women both wearing the minimum clothing; and everyone in between.
I was unusually sensible when checking into the hotel. On one side of the building was a stage where some of the music events were going to be held. Having made a mental note of this, I said to the check-in clerk: “Please can you put me on the street side – I would rather have sirens, trams and traffic, than music until the small hours.”
He did, and the traffic was not too bad. Judging by the bleary eyed expressions of a number of the other delegates, this was a good decision!
I travelled from Durban, leaving behind a city engulfed in (for Durban) cold weather. It was so cold that it marked two firsts. It was the first time I have ever had a heater in my office! I borrowed one of the electric bar heaters and had it on full power. The disadvantage of being on the top floor of a, not very well built, building is the wind finds its way insidiously through all the ill fitting doors and windows. It was not pleasant. The second new event was I had my flat air-conditioning unit turned onto the heat mode, I not even know if it would work. One evening, after putting on all clothing possible, I tried it and it blew out warm air! I left my flat wearing four layers: vest, shirt, jersey and jacket, and still felt cold, so at the airport I bought a tee-shirt. In Johannesburg it was – 2° C, the chill seemed to grasp at our legs on the air bridge. What a contrast with a very warm Europe.
The flight over to Amsterdam was uneventful I watched a film, drank wine and slept. I just had time for a shower, and then caught the flight to Geneva and the train to Montreux. Rather good that the train was at the platform and pulled away two minutes after I boarded it. Swiss efficiency I thought! This was spoiled on the journey back to Geneva after the meeting. The train was barrelling though the valley at a good pace when suddenly the brakes came on and we came to a halt in a most dramatic, albeit controlled manner. The smell of burnt brake pads wafted down the carriage; there was a stunned silence; and no platform was visible on either side of the train. I looked out of the window and saw a number of passengers gingerly climbing down to the path beside the track.
When the conductors came through I asked, “What happened? Was that an unscheduled stop?”
“The driver forgot he was supposed to stop at that station”, they said, clearly rather embarrassed.
I thought I might have a headache on Saturday. On the Friday night there were only three delegates left in the hotel: myself, Thomas an epidemiologist from Tulane University in New Orleans, and John from The Futures Institute in Hartford Connecticut. We decided to go out together for supper. As it happened John had a stinking cold, came down to tell us he was feeling grim and then crawled back up to bed. I did not know Thomas so it was a bit of a ‘blind date’. We walked to the kiosks that lined the edge of the lake to cater for the music lovers; bought food and went up the seating area to sit and order wine – which came in minute plastic glasses. We started with the reasonable wine but moved swiftly to the cheapest! The conversation was about malaria and being academics in the US, UK and South Africa. The economic crisis is being felt nearly everywhere and demands are increasing: publish; get research grants; and have a profile. The wine was not too bad and I had no headache the next morning which surprised me.
I had always believed that aircraft are at their emptiest on Saturdays. I was wrong, the airport in Geneva was heaving. Checking in and getting through security took well over an hour. But on the plus side I was given an ‘involuntary’ upgrade to business class! This had happened on the way out as well, so it was quite a score! This was not the only good thing to happen as part of my travelling. A week later at Heathrow on my way to Rome via Amsterdam, the check-in staff told me to go to the ticket desk because there were weather problems in Holland. I was given a seat on a direct flight to Rome on Alitalia. I got in three hours earlier than expected!
Part of the writing for this blog was done in the very back row of the Alitalia plane. It is worth sitting at the back in economy, it is not very popular and there are generally empty seats. The wine served in this part of the plane is headache in a bottle though. Alitalia is a Pepsi airline – which means that the drink they offer is Pepsi or diet Pepsi. How does this marketing and branding work, who makes these decisions and how? This was offered with either a pathetic little packet of almond biscuits or sort of breadsticks! No proper food even though the flight was from 4.30 to 7.pm. The issue of space on planes is interesting. One can’t mind sitting next to other people. The intimacy is something one has to grin and bear. However on one recent flight I found myself sitting in economy next to a chap, who, like me was wearing a short sleeved shirt. The light touch, and even mingling of arm hairs, with a stranger is a familiarity too far!
On getting home from Switzerland on Saturday evening we had a family meal. Rowan came over and we went out to the local Indian take-away to get supper for everyone. I had two evenings in London and ended up at Italian restaurants near Victoria station on both occasions. The first was not a great success as the ‘vegetarian’ pizza arrived with ham on it! The second meal was with Department for International Developmentcolleagues which was fun. We had spent the day in an airless, windowless, bunker in the bowels of the Ministry building doing the work planning.
The Saturday in Rome was busy. The reason for being there was to attend the Executive Committee and Governing Council meeting of the International AIDS Society. We meet twice a year – at a conference and then in retreat for a few days. The purpose is to provide direction for the organisation and deal with any issues. One quite interesting discussion has been about the size of the Council, at the moment 25 people elected from five regions of the world. The decision will probably be to reduce the number to 20, which will make it more manageable and cheaper. This has to go into the bye-laws and be approved by the members, which will take time. It was good to see a level of fiscal conservativism among my colleagues. Perhaps three years of my presenting treasurer’s reports and stressing the need for economy has borne fruit.
Rowan, her man Ben, and Douglas spent a Saturday at a festival. They were there for three nights camping, with the rain and mud; music and fun; lack of toilets and showers. The result I would imagine is spending time being cold, tired, wet, dirty, smelly, bad tempered and possibly constipated as the communal toilets are very basic. They had a great time. Then on Tuesday 19th July – a break from the Saturday theme – we went to the University of East Anglia and attended the graduation ceremony where Rowan got her BA (Hons) degree. It was such a good day and we felt so proud watching her go up on the stage, shake the Vice Chancellor’s hand and collect the award. Also how funny that this same hall is the one my parents sat in 33 years ago when I graduated. Rowan has managed to get her degree, work part time and have fun at university. She is not quite 21 and so has time to think about what she wants to next. I think she could possibly make a living writing, she is good. However she would need to practice.
Books and Films
Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs Alfred A Knopf, 528 pages, 2007. This is an excellent book; the ‘bridge’ is both in Venice and in the small rural town in New England where the bulk of the story is set. It is a ‘growing-up’ novel about an introverted boy Louis C. Lynch, who, from day one at school is called Lucy, as the teacher makes a mistake in the roll call. He is an only child of a powerful single minded mother, Tessa, and a father who is portrayed as rather a wimp. The story tells of changes in livelihood ‘strategies’ as the tannery, the economic mainstay of the town closes; relationships; and the tension between finding contentment in micro or the macro. It is well observed, and having grown up in a small town, Mbabane in Swaziland, I could identify many of the types of people Russo writes about. Lucy tries to befriend Bobby Marconi, the eldest son of a large family, where the father abuses the mother. The story centres on a relationship that does not really exist except by implication and persistence. I had enjoyed previous books by Russo and will certainly add him to my ‘order on line’ list. I am told the librarians in Helesdon appreciate the way I use the library.
Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog, Black Swan, 2011, 496 pages. The story begins with ex- policewoman buying a child off a drug addict at the shopping centre where she is head of security. The character from previous novels Jackson Brodie, another ex-policeman is in the area searching for the roots of a client in New Zealand. Also introduced is Tilly an elderly actress facing Alzheimer’s disease. The story is excellent and the book speeds up the end. As one review says: “All three characters learn that the past is never history and that no good deed goes unpunished”.
The two other books I mention are both authors I have enjoyed but the most recent books are is formulaic, badly written and unbelievable. The first is Cut and Run by Matt Hilton. The story and series are set around an ‘avenger’ by the name of Joe Hunter. The second is Payback by Simon Kernick which brings together two characters: Dennis Milne a former cop, now an assassin DI Tina Boyd a British Policewoman. It is set in Manila. Of course it is easy to be critical and it is worth remembering that there is a publisher who thinks this will sell, and the author is actually producing the words which I envy and I wish I were better at that!
Paul. This is science fiction film released in early 2011. It is the film I watched on the plane from Johannesburg to Amsterdam. It took me a long time to recall the title – the neural pathways in my brain were simply not firing in the right way to bring this back into my brain! The actors are superb Simon Pegg plays Graeme Willy who, with his friend, Clive Gollings are two English comic book nerds and best friends who are in the US attending the annual Comic-Con convention. They are visiting all the sites of major extraterrestrial importance, when a car crashes and an alien named Paul enters the story. They take him to meet up with a space ship that rescues him. and the film centres on events along the way. It is very funny and something of a take off and a homage to Steven Speilberg.